Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Engaging Chamber Music Recordings by Cellist Pierre Fournier

If this site was somewhat lukewarm in its reception of the concerto recordings in the 25-CD anthology, The Pierre Fournier Edition: Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon [DG], Decca & Philips, the chamber music recordings have revealed themselves to be far more appealing. In this collection there are sixteen CDs devoted entirely to chamber music and another two that offer short selections on CDs that begin with concerto recordings. In other words, the numbers alone suggest that Fournier was happier when he was playing chamber music. For that matter that happiness often seems to be a matter of engaging in enjoyable encounters.

For example, Fournier seems to have taken so much pleasure in playing all of the pieces that Ludwig van Beethoven composed for piano and cello (Beethoven’s preferred ordering of priorities) that he recorded the full set twice for DG. The sessions for the first round took place in 1959 with pianist Friedrich Gulda, who was about 25 years younger than Fournier; and the second round took place in 1968 with Wilhelm Kempff, who was over twenty years older. Both of these pianists had established reputations for solo performances of Beethoven, and those of my generation may recall that Gulda was the pianist on the 1967 recordings that the Musical Heritage Society issued of Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas. (It is also worth noting, as an aside, that by 1959 Gulda had also established his reputation as a jazz pianist with a particular interest in free improvisation.) Kempff is also the pianist on the recordings of all of the Beethoven piano trios (from sessions in 1969 and 1970), joined by violinist Henryk Szeryng.

At this point I wish to introduce an observation about Fournier from an unlikely source. I discovered it when I was preparing last week’s article about Thomas Moore’s performance of Morton Feldman’s “Triadic Memories.” The recording made by Aki Takahashi, one of the two pianists that commissioned this piece, included an essay by the composer, in which he talked about having the right performers for his music. He reflected on when the Boston Symphony Orchestra had performed his cello concerto with Principal Cello Jules Eskin as soloist. Feldman recalled having said the following after the first performance:
Mr. Erskin [sic], I really have nothing to say about the piece, but I feel that you are using the wrong cello, that it has too big a sound, has a kind of Piatigorsky sound, and I need a much more Fournier-type of sound.
Those who know pieces like “Triadic Memories” know that what Feldman wanted was a more subdued intimacy in the solo voice of his concerto.

To be fair most concertos for cello and orchestra do not go for that kind of intimacy, so it is not easy to think of an intimate relationship between a cello and a full symphony orchestra. For that matter it is hard to think of Gregor Piatigorsky going for intimacy in those chamber music performances in which he had to contend with the likes of Jascha Heifetz! Nevertheless, it is that sense of intimacy that pervades this generous collection of recordings on all three of the labels in the collection’s title. For that matter the recordings of the solo cello suites by Johann Sebastian Bach almost give the impression that Fournier is soliloquizing in some abstract dramatic setting.

To be fair, however, it is unclear that Bach thought of those suites as soliloquies. Most likely he wrote them strictly for pedagogical purposes. Furthermore, pedagogy involved not only fundamental matters of execution technique but also, as was the case with the solo violin pieces, an appreciation of the physical spirit of the movements named after dance forms. As was observed, also last week, Baroque violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock liked to remind her students that “Bach really knew his dances.” To be fair, none of us can make a solid claim to knowing the dance forms behind the pieces that Bach wrote; but it would be fair to say that, in Fournier’s interpretations of the solo cello suites, any spirit of dancing is a sometime thing. When it is there, it adds a certain uplifting spirit to the movement; but there are still other movements in which Fournier’s approach to expressiveness does not encompass that spirit.

Nevertheless, in the context of the entire collection, these are minor flaws (if we can even call them that), reflecting a worldview that was less aware of historical practices than our immediate contemporaries now enjoy. More importantly, there is a consistency of deeply-felt spirit behind even the “encore selections” in this collection. That makes for an abundance of highly satisfying listening experiences that cuts across both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There is much to be gained from taking in the full scope of those experiences.

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